Buried about halfway through 'Let It Be', the last of The Beatles' 13 studio albums, there's tucked away a 40-second excerpt from a Liverpudlian folk song 'Maggie Mae', sung in what you might call the native tongue. It's no 'Eleanor Rigby', but it does offer a neat little parable: an unexpected reminder that The Beatles, demi-gods of pop music and reputed forebears of just about all that has followed, were ultimately just four lads from Liverpool.
It's a lesson that is well worth carrying into another Liverpool icon, the Grand National, and not simply because of this iconic image. Amid all the romanticism and fable that surrounds the race, the great majority of its character is just that of any long-distance handicap chase.
Perhaps never more so. Much has been made of the latest alterations to the course, which are either regrettably necessary or downright unwelcome depending on which half of the 20th Century you ought to have been born in. It's still too soon to be certain, but early indications align with the intuition that says extra give in the new plastic frames makes for an easier jumping test.
Jumping is important in most handicap chases: it's just the case that a horse attacking the Aintree spruce fences is a more thrilling spectacle than one doing the same over conventional birch. A fair case in point would be Teaforthree, last year's Grand National third. Teaforthree is a bold jumper at the best of times, as he showed when a pleasing second at Ascot in February, but he looked as close to a natural as you're likely to see over these fences last year.
That Ascot run, however encouraging, provides some of the temperance for Teaforthree. He'd rightly been among the market leaders before that race, but for showing us little besides his wellbeing (he was already top on Timeform's weight-adjusted ratings) his price virtually halved. He's been pushed front and centre for the 2014 National, made into a John Lennon when in reality he's more of a George Harrison: brilliant in spurts and dependable when he isn't, but probably not the standout performer in the exalted company he keeps. The fact Teaforthree was only eighth in a substandard Gold Cup gently hardens this view.
It's said by some that the 'story horse' always wins the National. Don't believe it, least of all if anything other than Tidal Bay comes home first this year. He is the aging rock star of this group: as talented as Paul; as wacky as Ringo; as truculent as John. There would be no more popular winner.
The truth is that most horses come with a 'story', hence the old wives' tale. The other remaining Graham Wylie horse in the race, Prince de Beauchene, would make for one of the more romantic ones.
After moving to Willie Mullins in the summer of 2011, Prince de Beauchene had come into Grand National favouritism by the time injury ruled him out of the 2012 renewal a week before the race. In 2013, he was second-favourite behind On His Own less than a fortnight prior to the National. Once again, a hip injury forced his withdrawal.
Fewer risks have been taken this time. In both 2012 and 2013, Prince de Beauchene had paraded in the Bobbyjo Chase, a recognised National trial, before his ill-fated Aintree bids. This year at a more obscure stage, the Kinloch Brae Chase, was chosen. There Prince de Beauchene finished fourth but ran an eye-catching race, not having the pace to cope with the likes of Texas Jack and Last Instalment over two and a half miles but ultimately not beaten far under considerate handling from Ruby Walsh.
As a result of his more understated prep, Prince de Beauchene has been far less prominent in the ante-post market than in either of the last two years. Or he had been. He's come for money in recent days, a far more upbeat bulletin at this late stage compared with 2012 or 2013. Prince de Beauchene has always jumped like one who'll relish the National fences; if this is to be his year, then it won't be before time.
Recommendation two comes from a more recognised Grand National trial: the Cheltenham handicap. Last year was the first time since 2008 that none of the first four home had last run at the Festival. Don't Push It had pulled up in the Pertemps Final before winning in 2010 and it was in that race that Pineau de Re really caught the eye recently. He finished third, beaten just a nose and a neck in a typically red-hot handicap and you feel in a stride or two more he'd have won. He wouldn't still be 20/1 for the National if he had.
We have no reason to believe that Pineau de Re is an inferior chaser, or that he won't stay: his Ulster National win last year certainly acts against the latter, while an easy win at Exeter immediately prior to Cheltenham acts against the former.
A relatively early fall in December's Becher doesn't do Pineau de Re justice either: he'd jumped six of the first seven sure-footedly and his exit at the eighth appeared to owe more to an awkward landing than poor technique.
The drawback with Pineau de Re, the reason his strike-rate remains so ordinary for a very useful performer, is that he can flatter to deceive off the bridle. Plenty of shirkers and non-stayers have been coaxed into the places in the National before, some getting within sight of the elbow before they're let down, only to let down, but if it really concerns you there's always the option of an in-running trade on Betfair. For now you should play him / Then you can lay him / When he's 6/4.
The Grand National could claim to be bigger than Jesus (around 20 million Britons are expected to bet on the race; fewer than 5 million will attend church the next day) and sadly has proved beyond God. Godsmejudge would be our idea of a near-ideal National type, but his late defection makes that rather a moot point- for this year, at least. His position must be familiar to connections of Prince de Beauchene, who looks a good bet to secure some not-so-Instant Karma as he eventually lines up for a race that's long since looked made for him. Pineau de Re also appeals as well handicapped and didn't take to the course as poorly as his Becher run suggests. Finally, we wouldn't wish to put you off Teaforthree, whose price is short enough but holds strong claims of making the Fab Four again.comments powered by Disqus